My Mother Told Stories Through Hmong Embroidery, I Use the Pen
Naturally, the first person I wrote about was my mother.
The sewing would be done in the early morning, before catching the school bus, and late at night after the homework and dishes were done. It didn’t matter if I was busy, my mother said, because embroidery was not something done in “free time” or a replacement for idle daydreams. It was a deliberate act of cultural preservation: how to sew, mend, and repair things that had been ripped apart or worn away by time, and an incontestable way of demonstrating a girl’s worth as a future wife, mother, and daughter-in-law.
Every lesson began the same, with my mother saying: “Do it exactly as I do.”
The first lesson: cross-stitch, the rote, pixelated hatching for beginners.
The second lesson: reverse appliqué, quilting a jigsaw of discarded fabric strips with hundreds of hidden seams.
The final lesson: batik and satin stitch, creating patterns with wax and thread that, when finished, look so complex that, from afar, at first, it looks like chaos.
And, in between all of this, my mother talked constantly about style, color, motifs, and themes, and she narrated the secret meaning sewn into her pillows on our couch.
“That is the story of how we came to Laos over a hundred years ago,” she said. Triangles were for mountains. Steps and rice seeds for the long migration to new lands. Smaller triangles: fish scales, magical protection from evil spirits. The elephant’s foot, a sign of longevity, wrapped around snail shells: the wish for a long and happy marriage. Inside that union, the spirits of the ancestors guarding the house at the center of the world.
Although I loved my mother’s stories during these embroidery lessons, I was a terrible student. I would string my needle too long, the thread bucking through the empty canvas until it knotted into great birds’ nests, and almost every stitch was uneven. I couldn’t follow a pattern. I counted wrong. I was distracted and impatient, or too ambitious and cocky, to take my time. I thought about how I’d rather be sitting on the cracked concrete parking block with Youa, the girl from the other side of the apartment complex, smelling her strawberry lip gloss and taking turns writing stories in her blank notebook with her unbroken crayons, still pristine in their paper jackets.
The needle bit my fingertip. I left a constellation of stars smeared across my needlework.
“Too soft, see?” my mother laughed. She held a needle against the tip of her index finger. It was sheathed in a helmet of callused skin. She pressed the needle into it, and the needle bowed. “You can only master the needle by being the stronger one.”
“Copy me,” my mother said, as if those two words would magically transform my body into hers.
I knew better than to tell my mother that I would rather have a callus on my middle finger, like Jo March, a pillow I grew like a pearl to rest my pen. I preferred the specificity of words, because I liked the idea of definitions caged between letters; I liked the idea of telling a story without bleeding. I found sisterhood in stories written by early Hmong American women like Mai Neng Moua and Ka Vang, and their words awakened within me the dream of a literary kinship—a wish for my own Eden.
I thought twice to ask my mother if she had ever loved someone so much that she thought about them all the time—before she was married. If she would have chosen to get married, if it had been a choice at all. And if I failed at doing this one thing for my mother, would she love me still? It felt dangerous to ask.
It was easier to just call it dumb, old-fashioned, and useless and stop doing it completely. That it was women’s work, and it no longer had a place in the modern world. And perhaps this meant there wasn’t a place for my mother in my own world. It was easier to say this than to admit that I was afraid of her rejecting me for being all wrong.
But then ten years passed and, instead of finishing my embroidery, I left for a university hundreds of miles away. This was unheard of: a Hmong woman did not leave her parents’ house unless she was getting married. And, even then, all that she was allowed to take with her were her ceremonial clothes.
I boxed up my entire side of the bedroom I shared with my sister. Like many college-bound Hmong daughters of my generation, the first ones to leave home in the family, my mother took my departure as a personal betrayal. When I saw the frayed threads of my unfinished needlepoint snipped to shreds in the trash, I knew that she had erased me.
I had become a strange girl to her. I was a stranger without a country now.
The Hmong word for flower, in my mother’s White dialect, is paj. In the Green dialect, it is paaj.
paj / paaj / ˈpä / noun:
a poem, i.e. paj huam (flower spreading)
a wise word, i.e. paj lug (flower word)
a story, i.e. paj ntaub (flower cloth)
a woman, e.g. my mother
In English, my mother’s name is spelled Pang, as in, a sudden and sharp pain; an uneasiness about one’s own wild desires; a gnawing emotion; a feeling that blossoms from the center of your heart.
Naturally, the first person I wrote about was my mother. Unsure of how to begin, I returned to her embroidery lessons: First, start with a simple design. Straight outlines are best. Next, tear big pieces into small strips. Cut them down to size, and lay out the design. Flip the edges under and use small stitches so they are not visible, at first. Repeat the pattern up to the edges. Apply pressure to remove the excess, thus revealing a clean and final design: a map of your truth.
When the essay was published, I mailed my mother a copy of the anthology with a note. I felt brave after mailing it; then I lay on the couch in my apartment for weeks awaiting her phone call. Months later, my mother called only to say that she disagreed with one small detail in the story and that, because I had written it in English, she didn’t understand most of it. Lastly, I had failed to reproduce the world exactly as she had remembered it. But writing a story from your life is a self-portrait, not a photograph.
My mother had asked me to copy her, to become her, years ago through her embroidery lessons. I understood then, perhaps intuitively, that she was trying to teach me her language for storytelling so that she could live on in my memory. We had tried to deliver each other from alienation, but we were undone by our dueling languages of choice. Like the threads of my mother’s flower cloths, the memories of the past would always entangle with the present. Sewing was simply a metaphor for writing. Writing and sewing described, in fact, the very same thing.
My mother understands this now, years later, and she recognizes her long shadow wreathing my writing the same way her own mother’s shadow envelopes her paj ntaub. She knows that when I share the language of flowers, I carry her name with me. When I tell a writer how to be clever in their heart, and speak desire, she lives there too.
Lisa Lee Herrick is an award-winning Hmong American writer, artist, and producer based in California. She was a 2021 PEN America Emerging Voices fellow in Creative Nonfiction and a finalist for the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. She serves as editor-at-large for Hyphen magazine and is a regular contributor to The Rumpus. She is working on a new book of nature essays and a graphic novel anthology, and she is currently revising her memoir. Her writing is forthcoming in the anthology Nonwhite and Woman (Woodhall Press: Fall/September 2022).